The Blessed Virgin Mary is unfortunately left out of the picture that many, maybe most, modern Lutherans have of the holy catholic faith, which was once delivered unto the saints. While it is true that some Lutherans explicitly teach that it is less than Lutheran, indeed that it is dangerously Catholic, to dwell upon Mary (later I shall address that notion), I really think that in most cases Mary is left out of the picture for what I would call indirect reasons. One such factor that has led, as a byproduct among other byproducts, to a neglect of a healthy meditation on the place of Mary in the Gospel, is the waning and erosion of the traditional liturgy in the life of the Church. Let me put it another way. One of the great unexpected benefits that the Church will enjoy when the evangelical and catholic tradition of the liturgy is once again given priority is that Mary's place in the picture will come back into focus. That in turn will have many benefits, which I will to a small degree suggest later.
Many examples obtain, but for now let me focus on just a couple of recent examples in the sanctoral cycle. The week before Passiontide began this year, and by Passiontide I mean the full fortnight that leads up to the Paschal feast (a clarification necessitated by the modern obliteration, or "rethinking," of the importance of the first week of the Passion),we had two feasts in a row. Tuesday of that week this year, 24 March, was Saint Gabriel's Day, and as many more people know, the next day was the Day of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We get to see the genius of these two feasts being placed one after the other when they fortuitously are celebrated that way, which because of their proximity to Holy Week, does not always happen. That is the way it happened this year, where we first hear about the angel whose job it was to announce to the holy Virgin that she would be the Mother of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, and then, the next day, we hear the very same pericope, from Luke 1, which teaches us about that holy annunciation.
By the way, one seemingly little thing I noticed this year on Gabriel's feast is something I find significant. The first lesson is from Daniel 9, in the midst of which Gabriel greets Daniel by saying of himself that he has come to teach. No doubt in violation of certain hermeneutical rules, I heard those words as being spoken to me, as the celebrant (a messenger or "angel" from God) spoke to me, a lowly 21st century servant of the Mass groping through the darkness of the Babylonian captivity unique to my own flesh, these words, "I am now come forth to teach thee, and that thou mightest understand." It seems, indeed, that one of the special roles of Gabriel the angel is to teach, and note well that he teaches liturgically, which is to say that he teaches by delivering God's Word. It is precisely at the time of the evening oblation that he flies swiftly to Daniel with his message. In like manner, one of the features I appreciate in many depictions of the Annunciation is the tradition that the angel came to Mary just when she was engaged in prayer, meditating upon the scriptures, as, for example, one can see in the image at the top of this blog. In like manner also, we hear the Word the angel brings to us even today, as we enter into the mystery of the liturgy, a word deeply and richly evangelical, for it tells us of the advent of the Messiah, even Jesus our Immanuel.
So Daniel is a little Mary, and Mary, as glorious and holy as she is, in some ways is but a type of greater things, namely, what Christ, our God and Lord, accomplishes in the Church, and in the members of the same.
One of the rich and evangelical words of God that is heard several times in the liturgy of those two feasts is the so called angelic greeting. It is not only embodied in the Luke 1 Gospel, but is spoken in its traditional form elsewhere as well, such as in the Tract on Gabriel's feast, in which we hear these words:
"Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Behold, thou shalt conceive and bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Immanuel. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."
This angelic greeting, also called the Ave Maria, is also heard in the alleluia verses when these feasts are celebrated in Paschaltide.
I cannot resist also highlighting the special Preface used on the feast of the Annunciation, a Preface also heard on several other Marian feasts. Does Mary's ever-virginity ever show up in the liturgy?, the modern Lutheran may wonder. Indeed, it does, as for example, in this Preface:
"It is truly meet, right, and salutary, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, and on the feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Mary, ever a virgin, should praise and bless and proclaim Thee. For she conceived Thine only-begotten Son by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost; and losing not the glory of her virginity, gave to the world the everlasting light, Jesus Christ our Lord. Through whom the angels praise Thy majesty, the dominions worship it, and the powers are in awe. The heavens and the heavenly hosts, and the blessed seraphim join together in celebrating their joy," etc.
Just what evangelical purpose does it serve to focus more on Mary than usually happens in the modern Church? Shouldn't we rather focus on Christ? Such questions are, I believe, on the minds of many Lutherans when Mary is discussed to a degree to which they are not accustomed. And they are questions of a type that is admirable and praiseworthy, for they issue from a desire to remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our only Savior from sin. In fact, Mary helps us precisely to see Christ for who and what He is, the Savior of man and the Lord of the Church. Mary is the archetypical saint. And the saints, properly thought of, are always icons of Christ. That is to say, when the Christian looks and meditates upon the saint in faith, or with the eyes of faith, what is really happening is that the saint is serving as an instrument to focus our gaze in ever new ways, upon Christ. One does not look so much at an icon as through it, to find something else. It is a veritable window into heaven. And the dimensions of the Gospel that become ever clearer for us in this dark world are ever new. Christ makes all things new, a wonderful paschal truth, yet let us remember that He does so precisely in and through the liturgical life of His dear Church, even as she celebrates the feasts of the saints of old.